Dictionary of Symbols

In art, literature, film and life, even the littlest image or reference can open a world of interpretation. This thick encyclopedia, with contributions from scholars in various disciplines, is an excellent guide to the major and more esoteric origins of seemingly everything — from “abracadabra” to “Zodiac.” There are a ton of spiritual, mythological and/or cultural tangents that hopscotch the globe and back in time. Whenever I pick it up, I learn something new. I find the animal and food-related facts particularly enlightening (ex; oranges, a fertility symbol, are given to young married couples in Vietnam; and in Ancient China a formal offer of marriage was accompanied by a gift of oranges to the girl). The book’s title is somewhat misleading. It does not have illustrations — it’s all text. Some entries are a couple sentences, others stretch for a few pages. If you have plans to deconstruct the next season of Lost, you might find this one handy.

– Steven Leckart

Dictionary of Symbols
Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant
1996 (current translation), 1184 pages
$15
Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

abracadabra
This charm was used throughout the Middle Ages. ‘One only had to write it down in the triangular pattern shown below and wear it round one’s neck as a sort of phylactery or charm to be protected from various diseases and to be cured of fever’:

               ABRACADABRA
                ABRACADABR
                 ABRACADAB
                  ABRACADA
                   ABRACAD
                    ABRACA
                     ABRAC
                      ABRA
                       ABR
                        AB
                         A

The word derives from the Hebrew abreg ad habra meaning to ‘strike dead with thy lightning.’ In Hebrew it comprises nine letters. ‘Placing aleph on the left side of the triangle – and its ninefold repetition – is the magical element.’ By arranging the letters in a reverse triangle, the celestial energies which the charm claims to entrap are directed downwards. According, the figure should be seen three-dimensionally as a funnel… Like amulets, talismans and pentacles, this charm seeks to give the individual a sense of protection through communication with the higher powers and with the mysterious laws which govern the universe.

almond (Italian: mandorla)
Because of its husk, the almond is generally taken to symbolize the substance hidden within its accidents; spirituality masked by dogma and ritual; reality concealed by outward appearance; and, according to the secret doctrine, the eternally hidden Truth, Treasure and Fountain… The almond is Christ because his divine nature was hidden in the human, or in the womb of his virgin mother. It is also, according to Adam of St Victor, the mystery of light, that is to say the end of contemplation, the secret of inner illumination… The geometrical shape of the almond associates it with the symbolism of the LOZENGE, since it is a lozenge with the lateral angels rounded off. Like the lozenge it symbolizes the union of Heaven and Earth, of the upper and the lower worlds and, for this reason alone, would be ideally suited to frame the figures of the saints. It symbolizes the harmonious marriage which transcends the dualism of matter and spirit, fire and water, Heaven and Earth… In esoteric tradition the almond symbolizes the secret (a treasure) which is hidden in some dark place and which must be discovered in order to nourish the finder. The husk around it is compared with a wall or a gate. To find the almond or to eat the almond means to discover or to share in a secret.

otter
The otter, which rises to the surface of the water and then dives below it, posses lunar symbolism and from this derive the properties for which it is used in initiation. Otter-skin is used in initiation societies both among North American Indians and among Black Africans, especially the Bantu of Cameroon and Gabon… The shamans of the North American Ojibwa Indians keep their magic shells in an otter-skin bag. The messenger of the Great Spirit, who acts as intercessor between him and mankind, is supposed to have seen the wretched state of human weakness and disease and to have revealed the most sublime secrets to the otter and interfused its body with Migis (symbols of the Mide or members of the Midewiwin Medicine Lodge) so that the creature became immortal and could, by initiating humans, make them holy. All members of the Midewiwin carry otter-skin medicine bags. These are the bags which are aimed at the candidate at initiation ceremonies as if they were fire-arms and ‘kill’ him. They are then laid on his body until he is restored to life. After song and feasting the shamans present the new initiate with his own otter-skin bag. The otter is therefore an initiating spirit which kills and restores to life.

liver
The liver is commonly linked to outbursts of rage, the gall, from the bitter taste of bile, to animosity and to deliberately spiteful designs. Whatever the culture, there are few meanings without some similarity with the foregoing, Islam attributing the passions to the liver and suffering to the gall… ‘Dragon’s gall’ is contrasted with wine as the opposite to the drink of life. The Suwen, the basic treatise on Chinese traditional medicine, states that the gall has a bitter taste and a green tinge. It states that the liver generates strength… In Ancient China it was customary to eat the livers of one’s enemies. Not to do so would have been to cast doubts upon their valour which the eater believed he assimilated.

genius
In most ancient traditions and under a variety of different names, a ‘genius’ was believed to be the companion of every human being, as double, demon, guardian angel, counselor, intuition or supra-rational voice of conscience. The genius symbolizes the flash of enlightenment which, uncontrolled, engenders the deepest and strongest convictions. Immanent in every individual, physical or moral, the genius symbolizes the spiritual being… In Dogon tradition, the Nommo, eight little people, represent the eight genii who were the ancestors of mankind. They are often carved as the legs of thrones, chairs or stools. Their limbs and bodies need to be supple ‘as befits the genii of water, essentially protective spirits, in dry savannah country.’ They revealed to mankind the laws which the gods had given to regulate human activity… They are regarded as archetypal of the social order imposed by God.